The GOP's Dismal New Pledge

The GOP unveiled its much-anticipated new take on the 1994 Contract with America today. Lloyd Grove on what it’s missing—and how the sausage was made.

09.23.10 5:31 PM ET

Taking a page from Newt Gingrich’s playbook—or really 45 pages on shiny-slick paper in a hastily-produced mini-manifesto, rich with pictures, pie-charts and apple-pie sentiments—the House Republicans on Thursday released their long-awaited “Pledge to America.”

They did it well outside the nation’s capital, a 45-minute drive from the evil citadel of Washington, at a hardware store and lumber yard in Sterling, Virginia. Just outside the chicken-wire fence of Tart Lumber Co., where the event was staged, a small group of middle-aged white men with spreading middles—initially mistaken for angry protesters by elite members of beltway media—waved American flags and shouted such slogans as “No More Bailouts!,” “Stop the Spending!,” “We love the Pledge!” and, most exuberantly of all, “Welcome to Sterling!”

“We just listened to the American people and put in a lot of late hours,” the staffer told me. “Isn’t that bold?”

The idea, of course, was to pay homage to—and duplicate the salutary effects of—Gingrich’s famed “Contract With America” which, 16 years ago during President Bill Clinton’s fractious first term, was considered a key weapon in the Republican takeover of the House majority that ended four decades of Democratic rule.

In the end, Speaker Gingrich and the GOP went too far, causing a government shutdown and helping ensure Clinton’s reelection. Should the Republicans win this time, President Obama might well hope for a Clintonian outcome next time.

“We are calling on Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid to implement these proposals before Congress leaves this fall,” declared Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republicans’ chief deputy whip and top Republican candidate recruiter for this election cycle. Like all the other guys on a stage of wooden planks in the Tart Lumber warehouse—including House Minority Leader John Boehner, Whip Eric Cantor and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence—McCarthy was tieless, in carefully rolled-up shirtsleeves. The women, like Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, wore Washington power suits.

“The land of opportunity has become the land of shrinking prospects,” McCarthy went on, reading from a sheaf of papers. “Just as John Hancock boldly signed his name to the Declaration of Independence so that even King George could read it—I want to say this slowly so there is no room for misinterpretation—our government has failed us.”

McCarthy is the man who spent the last four months with Republican staffers burning the midnight oil to attractively repackage some familiar old GOP nostrums to cut taxes and spending, prevent new federal regulations, protect “traditional marriage,” clean up Congress, fund an ever-stronger military, and stop coddling terrorists—and, they hope, harness the rage abroad in the land to win victory in November.

“If our current troubles have somewhat dimmed the lights of that ‘Shining city on the Hill,’ ” McCarthy went on, “we pledge to recharge them. They will not go out on our watch.”

The would-be speaker of the house—sneaking a cigarette whenever he could, outside of public view, and his face the color and texture of (as the late Ricardo Montalban intoned in those Chrysler Cordoba commercials) soft Corinthian leather—talked of job creation and paying down debt—a dubious result given that the Pledge mentions little to nothing about the money-sucking entitlement programs that drive mushrooming federal deficits.

“This is a first step,” Boehner argued to a skeptical reporter who asked about the omission in the press conference portion of the event. “It’s time for us as Americans to have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges that face our country, in an honest open way that will help get us the answers to lay out the plan to solve this problem once and for all.”

The Pledge contains such ringing, albeit well-worn, rhetoric as “America is more than a country. America is an idea,” and “We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private faith-based organization that form the core of our American values.” It also uses the language of resentment and condemnation. “An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.”

Another skeptic pointed out that the best-case budget-cutting scenario of The Pledge—assuming a reversion to 2008 discretionary spending levels—is a savings of $100 billion a year, a drop in the bucket.

“A hundred billion dollars a year, over 10 years, is a trillion dollars!” Boehner parried—with no apology to Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies.

According to a Republican House staffer who helped organize the event, there was no “input”—and certainly no poetry—provided by polling wordsmith Frank Luntz, who helped write the “Contract” back in 1994, or by any Frank Luntz type.

“We just listened to the American people and put in a lot of late hours,” the staffer told me. “Isn’t that bold?”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.